Friday 1 March 2024

Human rights and social change in education

The international conventions, treaties and protocols such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, Article 4(a) of the UNESCO Convention against Discrimination in Education (1960) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1990), to name but a few, provide for the right to education to everyone. They further require every member state to “Promote equal opportunities and treatment in education and in particular to make primary education compulsory and free”. This commitment is further embodied into Goal 4 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals which states that every member state must “Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”. 

In aligning its goals with those of the United Nations, the African Union, under Goal 2 of Agenda 2063 – ‘The Africa We Want’, commits to ensuring that its citizens are well educated with skills revolutions underpinned by science, technology, and innovation. To achieve this goal, the South African government committed itself through Section 29 of the South African Constitution, which states that “Everyone has the right to a basic education, which the state, through reasonable measures, must make progressively available and accessible”. South Africa interpreted this section further in the National Development Plan 2030 (NDP) – ‘Our Future - Make it Work’, where it pledges "Improvement of quality education, skills development, and innovation in underperforming schools and further education and training colleges," among other things. 

Prof. Maitumeleng Nthontho, Associate Professor and a C2 NRF rated researcher in the Department of Education Management and Policy Studies (EMPS) at the University of Pretoria, explained that, while the above intentions are good, there appears to be a mismatch between legislation, policies, and practice in education in particular. As a result, executing goals set to promote 'human rights' in schools faces greater challenges now than ever before. The challenge of interpreting and translating human rights into daily school operations and procedures is crucial and requires immediate and academic attention.

"For example, since the introduction of the South African Schools Act in 1996, implementing the intended policy reforms in South African schools has resulted in unpleasant and tense disputes." Using the COVID-19 pandemic as a point of reference, the state declared the pandemic a State of Disaster under Section 3 of the Disaster Management Act, 2002 (Act no. 57 of 2002), resulting in a complete lockdown of the country, including a total shutdown of schools," Prof. Nthontho stated. "However, realising the potential violation of learners' right to education, the South African government was driven to design a solution, and online teaching and learning became a need rather than an option," she adds. 
Unfortunately, during the pandemic, South African legislation and education policies such as the Basic Education Laws Amendment (Act no 15 of 2011), the South African Schools Act (Act no 84 of 1996), and the South African Council for Educators (Act no 31 of 2000) were unconcerned about online teaching and learning. Given the disparities in the interests and literacy levels of relevant stakeholder groups, interpretations and translations this legislation and policies towards application of human rights are bound to differ, and without proper leadership strategies in place, conflicts resulting from these differences end up in courts of law or even resulting in the loss of lives. Despite the fact that ways and means are spelled out in the legislation and policies, execution remains the responsibility of schools and more often than not, contestations erupt between related parties over what is needed, why, how and who is capacitated to deliver and under what conditions.

Nonetheless, what stood out as the government, parent, and teacher representatives developed contingency plans for the resumption of schools during the pandemic was the lack of the ‘learner voice’ in the preparatory processes. "As an academic with a special interest in human rights application and the implementation of policies that protect, promote, and instil human rights in our schools, I believe in the slogan 'nothing about me without me', especially when a voice is provided for in the legislation that governs state organs, including schools." Non-involvement of learners in educational matters affecting them therefore infringes their 'right to freedom of expression' as stipulated in Article 10 of the Human Rights Act of 1998 and Section 16 of the South African Constitution," she noted.

A growing number of costly and protracted court and legislative disputes are being reported between schools and parents, as well as between parents and provincial departments of education over the execution of certain policies in which a number of human rights are violated in some way. Furthermore, learner unrest where property is usually vandalised and lives are lost, is often the result of learners seeking attention. Learners who engage in disruptive behaviours that contribute to social ills might also explain for their lack of involvement in issues that concern them. Finally, but not least, violent behaviours that erupt among learners and between learners and educators in our schools are largely cantered on learners that seek attention. 

Involving learners in educational matters does not necessarily mean letting them to control schools. It simply implies engaging their thoughts, listening to and hearing them out as they speak, and involving them in discussions on issues that directly or indirectly affect them. It is through such practices that learners develop listening skills, patience, respect, tolerance, and accommodation of ‘others’ opinions. Skills such as conflict and anger management, decision-making and problem solving are developed while at the same time their human rights and those of others are respected, protected, promoted, and instilled. It is also in such interactions where creativity and innovative ideas emerge, as well as where digital illiteracy amongst the seasoned community members is addressed by the young and technologically elite learners. In so doing, the goals that are pronounced by our legislation and educational policies are possible and the “flowering of talents” is realised.

"I recommend that institutions establish ‘learner parliaments’ where learners from surrounding schools may gather and learn about human rights in education from dedicated academics while also sharing their creativity and innovative skills that can change the society. Short courses on ‘human rights in education’ are also highly recommended, with many stakeholders in the education field eligible to enrol through the financial support from provincial departments of education." Prof. Nthontho said.

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